13 Sep 2013

Fears for the mental health of Australia's asylum seekers

5:11 pm on 13 September 2013

There are now more than 1,300 people housed in the Australian-run detention centres for asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and in Nauru.

The first of the camps, on Nauru, opened just on a year ago, and to date none of the inmates has been granted refugee status despite the Nauru government confirming two months ago that a number had qualified.

Amnesty International personnel from Australia visited the Nauru camp soon after it opened and they were appalled at what they found, calling it a recipe for disaster.

They wanted it shut down.

The Australian government didn't budge and the camp now holds twice as many people and it is expected many more will be moved there as Canberra further toughens its approach to what it calls illegal maritime arrivals.

Graeme McGregor is the refugee campaign co-ordinator for Amnesty International in Australia.

GRAEME McGREGOR: 12 months ago, Amnesty International Australia visited Nauru to look at conditions to talk to asylum seekers and stuff. Our finding is very similar to those at the UN High Commission For Refugees, and that was that both camps are harsh, that they failed to meet international standards, and in the case of Nauru now, where there are families and children, those conditions are completely inadequate for children.

DON WISEMAN: What do you think should happen?

GM: We would like to see an end to offshore processing. Being realistic, immediately, we would like to see a very rapid and drastic improvement of conditions for asylum seekers. For example, on Nauru, the men in that camp have been accommodated in canvas tents. Now, this is a tropical island with extremely hot temperatures and torrential downpours sometimes. And those canvas tents really are completely inadequate. They're very cramped. There are four to six men in a tent. And really those conditions are not appropriate. Probably one of our most extreme concerns relates to mental health, that until October this year there will be and has been no mental health support for the men in those camps. You're talking about people who are very likely to have a history of torture and trauma, and they're being provided with absolutely no mental health support whatsoever.

DW: In term of the accommodation, of course, I guess Australian and Nauruan authorities would claim 'Well, these guys burnt down their camp'.

GM: Yeah, we still don't know what provoked the riots, the violence there against the conditions of the camp. Certainly there was widespread destruction within the camp, including the health care facilities and some of the records offices where the men's claims were being held. And certainly that is extremely concerning. But we also say that when you're holding such a large number of men in such inappropriate conditions with very little progress in their asylum claims and almost no information about the progress of their claims and how long they're expected to be held in such conditions. But, really, you're setting up the conditions for that kind of incident. And that's not to alleviate the blame on the men involved, as such, but certainly those conditions were completely inappropriate.

DW: Almost no news, you say, on their applications for refugee status. Now, the Nauru government said two months ago it was very close to announcing the first to be granted refugee status. Nothing has happened. Where are we at? Do you think this process could go on for years? I know when you had people on the island in November last year you were concerned at the lack of progress then over these applications for refugee status. And here we are nearly a year later, and by all appearances nothing has changed.

GM: Absolutely. In the 12 months since the facility was first opened in September last year, none of the asylum seekers held there have been granted refugee status, because their claims were not processed for about nine months that process did not begin for nine months. And then the authorities claim that the recent riots there and the destruction that was claimed as a result has delayed the granting of that status.

DW: Is that just an excuse?

GM: I would point out that the lawyers of the men there, the lawyers that have been hired by the Australian government to assist with that process, they state that they have copies of the records required to grant that refugee status. So it's uncertain at this point what exactly is causing those delays. But certainly offshore processing has been proved to be an extremely ineffective and expensive system for detaining and processing asylum seekers. In the first nine months since they reopened both Nauru and Manus failed to begin processing for any of the asylum seekers there, which means that all of those men and children and families were being detained in appalling conditions with absolutely no progress in the situation and very little information on how long they would be held there. Obviously, with these massive changes to the offshore processing since the previous government announced their new policy, that's caused further delay and disruption to that process. And we are extremely concerned, as I said, about the impact of those delays on the man and on their mental health and well-being.

DW: Under the new Australian government we can expect things to be stepped up, can't we?

GM: Yeah. The new government has made it very clear that their priorities in asylum seeker issues are border protection and national security. And they have committed to maintaining the previous government's policy of offshore processing for the foreseeable future. And we're certainly hoping that they may change that position in the near future. And we hope that they can see the error of that policy, that it was rushed, it was ill-prepared, that the facilities on Manus and Nauru are completely inappropriate and we're really not ready for the massive influx of asylum seekers that this policy has brought about. Previously the facility on Manus island was holding around 200 men. We now believe the number is to be between 600 and 700. And we could expect easily that number to increase to the capacity of 3,000 people within a matter of months. And, really, there's no evidence as to how that facility is going to cope with this number. So we are concerned about the continuation of existing policies, we are concerned about the rhetoric being focused on border protection and national security, instead of the rights of asylum seekers and the protection of vulnerable people. But certainly we'll be taking it up with the new government, and we hope that the new government is an opportunity to change this issue for the long term.

DW: In terms of the costs, one of the key attractions, obviously, for Nauru is the amount of money that they're earning from this process. It's keeping the economy afloat, it's providing significant employment and if you talk to people in Nauru no-one is critical or no-one raises concerns about the human rights or whatever of the asylum seekers.

GM: Yeah, we've heard quite mixed responses from Nauruans themselves about the asylum seekers and about their detention on Nauru.Certainly I think it's a similar situation on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea more generally. But opinion from what we've seen from media reports and interviews with people, opinion is quite divided about this. I think you're right in saying that the Nauruans don't generally have a problem with having asylum seekers on the island, you're right it brings jobs and some economic benefits. But we've also heard a fair number of Nauruans express concern about the detention of the asylum seekers, that many don't understand why they have to be detained in prison-like conditions, why they can't be allowed to live on the island until their claims are processed. So there's a real mix of opinion amongst the citizens of both Nauru and Papua New Guinea about this policy.